Mission rescues wounded in Bosnia

December 25, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

Two Cumberland-area men just home from a mission of mercy to rescue war-wounded children in the besieged Bosnian city of Mostar tell of a sometimes harrowing and dramatic journey in the Balkan war zone.

The men -- a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a tax consultant -- joined a British-American contingent of doctors and civilians who, under the protection of United Nations forces, evacuated 22 wounded men, women and children Sunday from Mostar in southern Bosnia.

Leaving the area, vehicles in an elaborate mercy mission stretched about 2.5 miles.

"The wounded were pretty shocked," said Robert Taft, a retired military officer who lives in West Virginia outside of Cumberland. "It took them awhile to realize they were free and that nobody was going to hurt them. They were like children being rescued from a wild dog."

It was also an emotional experience for the volunteers involved, including one of the Marylanders.

"They're fighting for their lives and losing," said Lee DeWitt, a Cumberland business owner. "It was so horrible that when I got to my son's home in Cecil County and tried to describe the trip to his family and friends I came close to breaking down several times. It was so stressful."

Those rescued are part of a much larger operation conducted by U.N. Protective Forces. In all, 44 wounded -- including 26 children and 54 accompanying family members were evacuated from Mostar, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Kakanji and Zenica last weekend.

The wounded are bound for hospitals in the United States, Great Britain, Spain and Austria. Sixteen children are expected to be transported to American facilities, including Sacred Heart Hospital in Cumberland and at least two other Maryland hospitals. The Cumberland hospital expects to receive an 11-year-old Mostar boy, believed to have been wounded by artillery fire.

Conditions in Bosnia are so difficult and the relief effort was so spread out that a week after the rescue, details of individuals and conditions are just beginning to come into focus.

On Thursday, the governor's office announced that two other Maryland hospitals -- Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore and Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury -- have either treated or are treating Balkan war victims. Three other hospitals -- in Annapolis, Glen Burnie and Easton -- are awaiting patients.

Cumberland had its first experience in handling Balkan patients this fall, when Maja Kazazic, a Mostar teen-ager, arrived at Cumberland's Memorial Hospital and Medical Center for rehabilitation after amputation of a leg that had been hit by shrapnel from artillery fire as she played outside her home. Maja is still living in Cumberland.

The British-American mission to evacuate war-wounded children last weekend was prompted by group members' frustration with the lack of international policy to end the Bosnian civil war and the bureaucratic red tape that, they contend, has stymied other evacuations.

Dubbed "Operation Angel," their mission initially centered on rescuing children, but was later expanded to include adults. Organizers said they believed the adults were included in the evacuations as part of a compromise between Bosnia's warring factions.

"We didn't get as many children as we wanted, but I think we accomplished our mission," said Jerry Genesio, executive director of Veterans for Peace Inc., a mission sponsor. "The convoy served as a catalyst to move the U.N. further along in evacuations. We're confident this would not have taken place otherwise."

'They're all war-wounded'

But U.N. Protective Forces have been evacuating adult and children patients in need of medical treatment since April, said Sonya Thompson, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Zagreb. So far, 371 patients and 347 relatives have been transported out of Bosnia.

She said U.N. efforts are often stymied by the Serbians, who change evacuation conditions weekly. She said the United Nations doesn't limit evacuations to the war-wounded, but includes others, such as cancer and leukemia patients who can benefit from outside medical treatment.

"They're all war-wounded, as far as we're concerned," she said.

Operation Angel consisted of a convoy of 61 vehicles and 200 doctors, nurses, drivers and average citizens -- many from small American towns like Cumberland. They left England two weeks ago, traversed the European continent, crossed the Alps into Italy, then ferried across the Adriatic Sea to Split, Croatia.

Neither Mr. Taft nor Mr. DeWitt made the final leg of the journey from the Croatia-Bosnia border into Mostar. Only seven convoy members were allowed to enter the war zone.

Even so, the three-hour journey from outside Split, where the convoy was headquartered at a hotel, to the border was treacherous. The convoy traveled along a two-lane highway that paralleled the Adriatic coast and rose 200 feet to 300 feet above it, Mr. Taft said.

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